My One-sided and Probably Totally Biased Memories of the Guerilla Poetics Project

In a podcast I did with author Hosho McCreesh we talked a bit about the Guerilla Poetics Project, and I think the project was interesting enough to talk about in a little more detail. As a cautionary tale, perhaps. I don’t mean that to sound ominous, I think it was a great project and still could be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’ve never heard of Guerilla Poetics Project, here’s a little breakdown, a thumbnail sketch so to speak, the 50,000-foot view, as countless idiots who have read any business book written in the past 20 years might say. And for the purpose of avoiding saying Guerilla Poetics Project a thousand times, I’m usually going to call it GPP here, which should not be confused with the GDP the BBC or OPP. Everything clear? Then let us proceed into the water, children. Watch out for sharks and pointy, stinging things.

GPP was a project started by a small handful of people, Hosho says maybe 10, but by the time I got on board in the summer of 2006 I only saw four names consistently in our group emails, and they were Justin Barrett, Chris Cunningham, Hosho McCreesh, and Bill Roberts.

Other people may have been around when the spark of the idea took hold, but if they were, they didn’t stick around for long. It would be the five of us who would carry, push and drag the GPP through its 2 1/2 years of life.

GPP was started to spread the work of small press or underground poets to a more mainstream audience. But the way they proposed to do it was, I thought, pure genius, and I don’t throw that word around much.

They letterpress printed short poems on cards – which from here on out I’ll be calling “broadsides,” because that’s what we called them, and technically that’s what they were – but they printed and stuck the broadsides into literary-type books in bookstores or libraries all over the world.

Which is clever, but not genius. The genius part was making the whole process interactive.

Every broadside had a unique number printed on it. So if you found a broadside in a book, the back of the card had a little explanation of what GPP was and the website address and that unique number. Since each broadside was unique, you could “register” your find on the website, and it would show up on a map and in a list and in a running tally on the poet’s profile page.

That’s the short explanation. There’s more to it of course, as there usually is when something looks simple on the surface. But the goal of the project was to get people who were already interested in poetry or literature to get involved with a scrappy band of small press or underground type, relatively unknown poets. So at its heart, while it was kind of an art project, it was also a guerilla marketing strategy.

I got involved when Bill Roberts showed me the original site, which was pretty basic, but it got the idea across. I was so god damned excited by the idea that I foolishly asked if they had any plans to automate the process of registering the found broadsides. I think they had a little form or something, but it just went to someone’s email, so the whole process would have been manual. They said, “No, as a matter of fact, that would be great, but none of us is really a programmer. Is that something you could do?”

Now believe me when I tell you I’m not a programmer either. But I knew how to make a website talk to a database, and the way I saw it, that was all that was needed, so I said, “It doesn’t seem too complicated,” and started building a database and a website that we would keep improving on and adding features to for as long as the GPP was rolling. And even for a while after it stopped rolling.

I mentioned that the GPP was active for 2 1/2 years, and to that you may shrug and say, “Big deal, mjp,” but it was a big deal. We published a couple of new broadsides every month for those 2 1/2 years.

Publishing two letterpressed poem broadsides every month is an impressive feat in and of itself, but add to that numbering those broadsides, distributing them to operatives all over the world, managing subscriptions and users, coming up with an online poem submission and blind voting method to choose the poems, and on and on and on – it’s actually a ridiculously impressive feat.

During those 2 1/2 years, more than 50,000 broadsides were published and distributed – 52,220 to be exact – with 58 poems by 33 poets.

That’s how it ended, but it began when the initial group invited some poets whose work they liked to submit work for the first broadsides, so they could be printed and ready before they officially announced the project. Voting on that first batch of poems was done via email or carrier pigeon or something, and it was all very democratic and above board, they tell me, but it wasn’t very efficient.

So one of the first things we did was build a poem submission function into the site, and then a blind voting system – blind meaning the writer’s name was not attached to the poem, in order to remove any biases or voting for friends. Even the site administrators couldn’t see the poet’s names until voting was complete. When the system was finished, someone could log in, read a group of poems and click ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ hit submit, and everything would be automatically tallied.

That was really just the tip of the website iceberg though. There had to be a way to enter new broadsides into the database, a way for people to sign up to become members, then a way for those members to log in and edit their bios and upload a picture and whatnot, a way for the poets to enter poem submissions, then the aforementioned voting system (which, being simple to use, was naturally ridiculously complicated under the hood), and an entire back end or admin system, that let us view and edit new member submissions, add links to the site and items to the store, manage the email list and the physical address mailing list, view and approve new broadside finds, and a few other things that I can’t even remember.

I put about 1,500 hours into the site over 2 1/2 years. Man, you’d think it would look better, wouldn’t you? But no one ever saw most of that work. It was just mechanics that made things go. All the stuff everyone takes for granted on a website. And if that sounds like a lot of hours, or like I’m complaining about a lot of hours, I’d hazard a guess that Bill put in even more hours printing and shipping. In fact, I’m quite sure he did.

We all worked hard, and none of us were paid for our work. But we weren’t looking to get paid, you see? We thought we were working on the coolest idea ever to come down the pike, so no one cared. Well, I should speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure no one minded working for the project for free.

But printing and mailing thousands of broadsides costs money, so there was a cost associated with participating in GPP. If you wanted to hide the broadsides or have your poems considered for publication, you had to be a paying GPP member. But the cost was ridiculously low.

Membership was only $25 a year. That’s $25 for 24 poem broadsides, so just over a dollar apiece. Which was – and still is – a great price for a broadside. No one was selling broadsides for a buck, much less giving away copies to subscribers to go out and hide. So for that annual fee, people were getting 24 to keep, and another 120 to hide, 144 broadsides for $25. And I think a Ginsu knife too, at one point. Did you know you can still get Ginsu knives? It’s true.

But as much of a deal as the $25 membership fee was, some people still complained that we wanted any money to participate. “I would be happy to participate, but not for $25. It should be free if you believe in it so much.” Sure. Free, why not. No one seems to understand in this wonderful internet age that nothing is free. Everything is the result of someone’s work, someone’s money. But you can’t explain Netflix to a monkey, so don’t waste your time trying.

Anyway, a lot of people did join, some were active operatives, who went out and stuck the broadsides into books, and some were patrons, who just collected the broadsides and contributed to the project. We were able to publish and print and pay postage to send the broadsides all over the world, but if in some corners there was some kind of hilarious notion that we were making money on the project, let me assure you that we lost money on every one of those $25 memberships, especially when we sent stuff overseas.

So to supplement the project we created some promotional swag to sell: patches, bumper stickers, dog tags – and we published a book, the GPP Reader, which you can now download for free. And now that I think of it, we also published a hardcover limited edition set of the first year of GPP broadsides. I think there were only 26 copies. If you got your hands on one of those, consider yourself lucky.

To show you how much money we weren’t making, the GPP Reader was primarily funded by a patron who sold a couple of her dad’s collectible poker chips to pay for the printing. That’s how rolling in dough we were. You’ve probably heard of Internet startups getting venture capital funding – we were getting pawn shop funding.

But a lot of people were eager to help, not only hiding broadsides, buying our promotional treasures, submitting poems and voting, but we after a while we also had professionals designing broadsides for free. And Bill roped in a few printers to do broadside runs, though the bulk of the printing was done by one man and one machine. Overall though, something about the idea really caught people’s imagination, just like we knew it would.

The best thing about the project was that it was a true collective, and a perfectly democratic way to run what was essentially a small press magazine, only we published letterpressed broadsides instead of making yet another typical folded and stapled zine. Nothing wrong with those, but GPP took publishing poetry a step further.

Among the five of us at the core of the thing, everyone had pretty specific jobs to do, but no one ever took individual credit for anything, we all just worked together to make it fly. We didn’t have our names all over it, though I would have been proud to put my name on it. The decision was made from the start that it would be a collective, and we wouldn’t talk about who was behind it.

It was kind of obvious who was behind it if you were paying attention, but the point is, it was never a vanity project. We got a lot of help from a lot of enthusiastic supporters, and people took time out of their lives to go hide the broadsides in bookstores and libraries in their hometowns. That right there is still a pretty amazing thing.

And GPP made a little noise while it was going, as far as the small press is concerned. The project was written up in a couple of magazines, including Poets & Writers, which is like, the apex, the Wall Street Journal of the poetry scene, such as it is. The small press still struggles to expand its readership, it always will, but the GPP energized people for a couple of years there, and it’ll continue to leave an impression for years to come, thanks to the internet.

We may have been a few years early as far as the Internet is concerned though. For its time it was amazing that you could punch a number into a website and log a found broadside (you can still do that, and here all these years after the project folded, people still do). But man, if we were starting now, it could be a completely different animal, what with social media and everyone having an Internet-connected computer in their pocket.

Imagine flipping over a broadside and just taking a picture of a code and boom – the find is automatically registered. Including the exact location, which could be taken from GPS data. Then the find could be automatically posted to Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. Every bit of that is do-able right now, and if we launched today rather than in 2006, I think it would be incredibly fucking “viral,” as the marketers say.

But the five of us won’t be doing it. I think everyone was happy to put a pin in it when it was finished. because here’s the thing, the concept was so great that I—and I assume the other guys too—naively figured we would pick up people along the way who were willing to shoulder some of the work. Aside from Bill convincing a few letterpress printers to do a run for us here and there, that didn’t happen.

You’d think that because we had such marvelous whiz-bang technological awesomeness it would be easy to get people to participate, wouldn’t you? Well, it wasn’t easy to get people to participate at all, no matter how simple or enticing we made it. And unfortunately that even went down to voting for which poems would be published. The last couple of rounds we did, we had to email people a few times, and even then, only a small percentage came to vote.

The typical poet seemed to look at GPP as just another outlet for their work. It certainly was that, but if we could have convinced people to participate more, it would have been a lot more than that. But if you can’t get someone to even read a batch of poems and click a few buttons, you can imagine that no one was lining up to help do any grunt work.

Well, Bukowski said, “Great poets die in steaming pots of shit,” and if that’s where the great ones end up, you can imagine what the rest of us are worth. Then there was the problem of the poets who seemed to think that a GPP membership guaranteed them getting published on a broadside, but that was never part of the deal. The voting was blind, so if your shit was never chosen, hey man, that’s just the way it goes.

But what it seemed to come down to was the unavoidable fact that not many people are willing to work on something that doesn’t directly benefit them. It’s short-sighted if you think about it, but I suppose it’s just human nature.

People who will put a lot of effort into something just because it’s cool are few and far between. And I picked on poets, but it’s certainly not just poets. It’s everybody. And it only seems to be getting worse. It wasn’t that long ago that people would work hard on something creative for decades, and maybe it would never pan out and make them successful, but they did it anyway.

Young musicians don’t play in a band for years anymore, they’ll be out in six months looking for something else if they don’t get what they want right away. If someone’s first novel is rejected ten times they drop it and write something else or do something else.

And I’ve talked about podcasters before, and trust me, they’re the worst. The most fickle and useless people I’ve come across in a long time. “Hey, I’ve been doing my podcast for three weeks now and I’m just not getting any traction, should I rename it, or just start a new one from scratch? I can’t monetize this thing as it stands.”

I don’t know man, but I think we’re losing all of our expertise and for sure we’re losing a lot of communal, collective, creative projects due to this restlessness and impatience that seems to have us all hypnotized and running after nothing. Elbowing each other out of the way, chasing after shit we can’t even describe.

Whenever any of the five of us talks about GPP in public anywhere someone will always say what a great idea it was and that we should start it back up, or should have kept it going. But like I said, I think all of us were glad to see it end strong, rather than a prolonged withering or fizzling out. We killed it at the top of our game, and that’s how everything should end.

I know it was killing our printer and primary shipper, Bill, and when the economy collapsed in 2008 he had to scramble to get enough work to feed his family, so we couldn’t exactly give him a hard time about some GPP printing schedule. And the project had really become big enough to require pretty much constant attention, and of course, we all had other jobs that had to come first.

But our own personal involvement aside, I don’t know if the concept could really work now, or in the near future, even if you had a dozen printers and two dozen administrators and a mailroom staffed by 20 interns. Mainly because the book store is an endangered species, and that’s where we liked to do most of our broadside sticking.

Libraries are fine, but bookstores are full of people spending money on the printed word. Our people! The decline of retail bookstores in the years since we stopped publishing the broadsides in 2008 is undeniable, so I’m not sure where a new version of GPP would exist.

I don’t think bookstores are dead and the decline is irreversible. Almost everything comes back around now. I mean, I was just reading an article a few days ago talking about how many old vinyl record pressing plants are coming back online, and people are repairing the rickety old pressing equipment and firing it up again. All because the demand for vinyl records is increasing.

But we’re probably 20 years away from any resurgence in physical books. It will take that long for people to realize that we’ve lost so many of them, and for a new generation of kids to demand their return. Like they did with those shitty vinyl LPs.

The last Guerilla Poetics Project broadside was published in December of 2008, but the “find” registration function on the website is still active, so even now, years after the project ended, broadsides are still being found. Personally, I think we’re going to see new finds registered as long as we keep the site up.

And hey, we’ll even still sell you a pack of 10 assorted broadsides for $2.50 and you can hide them yourself . Go to the website and get some. You just might get addicted to sneaking them into books while everyone around you is looking for the latest Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh book.

New orders for those broadside packs come in every couple weeks, believe it or not. And Hosho is still sending them out. I think he and I are the last men standing who are still doing any work for GPP. He mails things out and I keep the site running. We’re like lighthouse keepers. Or maybe the Beatles fan club circa 1984.

But here’s the bottom line: 50,000 broadsides were distributed and there are about 750 registered finds. 750! Now those of you good at math may say that a 1.5% found broadside registration rate is pretty small. But take into account the fact that not every broadside sent out to operatives was actually stuck into a book and the fact that not everyone who found one bothered to come to the site and register it, and I think it’s a pretty amazing result.

And those were poems man, not McDonald’s Monopoly game pieces, which makes the fact that anyone ever registered a find kind of a minor miracle. So yeah, the whole project was amazing.

Okay, so there’s that story. Now you know about the Guerilla Poetics Project, so your life is pretty much complete.


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